Chubby Kids, Overweight Adults? Stopping Obesity Before it Starts

Who can resist a chubby little kid? Those cheeks, begging to be pinched, and stubby little legs are adorable. But could the chubbiness we find so cute in little ones be a warning sign that obesity is in their future? The answer seems to be yes, according to a study conducted by Solveig A. Cunningham, PhD, assistant professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta.

Studying the Data in School Kids

"We had this amazing, nationally representative data set collected by the Department of Education that followed kids from kindergarten to eighth grade," Cunningham explains. Using this information on more than 7,000 children, she discovered that children who were overweight in kindergarten were four times more likely than their healthy weight counterparts to be overweight by the time they reached eighth grade.

Cunningham admits the findings surprised her. "We did not expect to see the risks of obesity earlier, rather than later, in childhood. We also did not expect such large differences in risk between normal weight and overweight kindergartners."

Food for Thought: Putting the Findings to Use

While the results may seem scary, Cunningham hopes they’ll be used to help parents and children become more aware of the risks of obesity, and make smarter lifestyle choices. "This study is not a source of worry, but rather an opportunity. It highlights the importance of the very first years of life—the time kids are noticing everything. They are looking around and learning, from their parents especially, but also from their teachers and peers," she says. "That’s why it’s vital to model healthy behaviors, because that’s what little ones pick up on. Seeing mom enjoy her salad conveys the idea that is it delicious. Watching teachers be active at playtime communicates that moving is fun."

Cunningham adds, "The last thing we want to do is to worry kids about weight or put them on diets. The focus must be on instilling a love of healthy habits that will last a lifetime."

Good Habits Start Early

Pennsylvania-based nutritionist Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, strongly agrees with this message, not only because it teaches kids to make healthy choices now, but also because it will help them later in life. "Obesity begins at home in early childhood," Brill says. "Physiologically, there are several periods during early childhood development when fat cells are laid down. Once fat cells are formed, the only way to lose weight is to shrink them—which is extremely difficult to do and sets children up for a lifetime of struggling with weight."

What You Can Do

"The best way to fight obesity in adults is to prevent overweight and obesity in infants, children, and adolescents," Brill says. "That means breast-feeding babies on demand, not overfeeding children, and encouraging healthy eating and activity in adolescence."

Solveig A. Cunningham, PhD, and Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RDN, CSSD, FAND reviewed this article.


Solveig A. Cunningham, PhD, assistant professor of global health, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University. Email interview February 26, 2014. 

Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, nutritionist, author, and "Go Red" spokesperson. Email interview February 25, 2014.